Arabian Nights…..American Hangovers!

Dubai…..Dubai….where do I start?  First I must say that I have pledged to deliver these blog postings without fear or favor, tell it like it is, call it like I see it, and all that.  So, at the risk of upsetting the very generous friends who provided for us and cared for us like we were their own while we were in Dubai – transitioning, if you will, from the Europe portion of our trip to the African segment, I offer the following truthful observations.

My first impression of Dubai was, on the one hand, considerably below my expectations.  Both Francesca and I had thought it would be like a glittering Arab Las Vegas (but, you know, in a good way) with one contained strip with all of the glitzy hotels and restaurants that we had seen in magazines.  But we found that the “action” in Dubai is spread out and takes nearly 20-30 minutes (or more during times of traffic) to get from any one place to any other place, which is a considerable amount of time for a city that everyone who lives here seems to describe as “small”.

Plus there are dozens and dozens of unfinished buildings – casualties, apparently, of the worldwide economic downturn.  As a result the Dubai skyline is littered with these concrete carcasses that in more prosperous times would have perhaps added to the magic of the place, but now only serve to detract from it and create a pall over the city that until a year ago apparently had a more healthy pulse beating through it.

Even as you move away from the major hotels and out towards the desert there are reminders of what was once a huge real estate boom.  Large development projects have been seemingly abandoned on the side of the road including a Universal Studios theme park where only the entrance gateway and logo marquee stand forlornly among the dunes with little hope of ever being completed (at least not any time soon).  The only activity out that way appears to be the camel jockeys jockeying for position.

[Note: In real camel racing, so we were informed, the jockeys are not human, but rather remote controlled robots with mechanical arms holding riding crops.  Who knew?].

The glitzy & glamorous Dubai does exists for sure, but it is just more spread out than we thought it would be.  To the nonresident outsider, at least a non Arab outsider, the city seems devoid of any culture and simply a massive, decadent theme park within which the rich can conspicuously consume.  Indeed on our first night, my friend Eiji, who used to live and work in Dubai (until he recently took a job with a financial company in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia) pointed out a gleaming white SUV driving in front of us with a diamond studded Range Rover logo on the rear bumper!  And the US Investment Banking executives are being scrutinized for their spending habits??!

And when Eiji (very generously) took us to brunch (which is an even bigger sport in Dubai than it is in New York City) they placed round cushions on the floor beside your chair to rest your bag so it wouldn’t have to touch the floor, which, by the way, was immaculately clean anyway.

I imagine Dubai worked to perfection in the roaring early 2000’s, but in the context of the worldwide economic downturn all of the over-the-top ostentatious displays and services just seem to be out of place and a bit sad quite frankly.

Still, on the other hand (you’d forgotten about the other hand didn’t you?), our expectations were surpassed in that we didn’t think we’d know anyone or find much to do in Dubai and both turned out to be untrue.

The litmus test of a any city should always be, in my opinion, measured by the quality of the people inhabiting it and I have to say Francesca and I had three of the most fun (and exhausting) days & nights so far on our RTW trip.  In addition to my friend Eiji, we also got together with Francesca’s high school friend Shoji and his wife Asako at their apartment party where we met a very diverse and interesting group of expats.

Many of them were runners and/or cycling enthusiasts and, interestingly, they said that Dubai is not very runner or cycler friendly which forces them to drive well outside of the main city area to safely go for a jog or a ride.

Ashwin, Aparna & me at one of the many trendy bars at the Dubai Marine Beach Resort & Spa.

We also stayed with Aparna, the sister of Ashwin, a good friend of mine from business school.  They are from India, but basically grew up in Dubai and know the city well.  We had not met Aparna before, but she could not have been a more gracious host and took excellent care of us.  We met many others as well who are pictured below.

Francesca and Eiji enjoying a late night kebab at an off-the-beaten path Iraqi restaurant frequented by locals, or at least they appeared to me to be locals – definitely no western tourists here.  An interesting observation; it was about 12:30am and the restaurant was packed with diners including quite a few families with children under age five.  Uh…..can we have a bed time check on these kids?  Or can a brother get a nanny?

Me and Rona an Egyptian American young woman from my business school who just graduated and moved to Dubai three months ago.

Francesca’s Aunt Susan (who works for the UN in Kabul, Afganistan), Monica (an economist at one of the largest Egyptian banks), Eiji, me, Francesca at the Jumeirah Beach Club Marina restaurant’s all you can eat and drink champagne brunch.

Franny particularly enjoyed the all you can eat desert table.

When any of our friends went through the list of “must see” sights in Dubai it was literally hotel, mall, hotel, mall, mall, theme park, hotel….mall.  Having just come from Europe where the must see sites are spectacular churches and mosques or famous battle grounds or cultural artifacts the hotels and malls seemed a bit culturally weak by comparison.  When I told Nadine, a friend of a friend who has been living in Dubai for three years, that we have malls in my native New Jersey she said “yeah, but not ones with ski slopes, ice skating rinks and massive aquariums in them”.  Touché.  While we never made it to any of Dubai’s show piece malls it wasn’t because of a lack of interest, just a lack of time and we were enjoying spending what little time we had just hanging out with old and new friends.

Nadine at the Atlantis Beach Resort

Eat, Play, Love.  As I have been reporting we’ve been eating and loving plenty (well, eating definitely and loving……if not plenty, than certainly as much as the next married couple), but we’ve been pretty light so far on the “playing”.  Until now.  We got all charged up for some Dubai dune bashing.  We’d seen a TV program in Turkey (it was playing as background noise in a bar) entitled “Horrific Crashes” or something gnarly like that and it contained a clip of these 4×4 SUVs flying over sand dunes in the middle of the desert.   It looked really hard core and we were determined to do this in Dubai.  But when we found out you could drive yourself in a dune buggy, well, we thought, even better. “Hey, let’s do this really dangerous thing and drive OURSELVES!”  Huh?!  Oh, don’t worry, they give you a helmet.  And goggles as it turns out.

We are pictured here along with the two local guides and a father-son team from Canada.

But we didn’t really need the helmet as it wasn’t quite as extreme as the crash video had lead us to believe.  We weren’t so much “bashing” the dunes as we were sort of just puttering around them in glorified golf carts.  When we stopped halfway for a break (which was totally unnecessary by the way, who gets tuckered out riding around in a go cart?) I asked the guide if he could take me for some real bashing in his buggy – assuming that it was only tame for safety reasons and that if he were driving we could really catch some air off these suckers.  He replied that the purpose was not to bash the dunes, but to “connect with the dunes”.  We’re pretty sure he meant “connect the dunes”, as in drive between their troughs, but who knows, perhaps we were supposed to be trying to become one with the dunes on some more spiritual level?  As it was, Franny shouted out to him “Hey Mister, we don’t want to connect with them, we want to bash them!”  Sadly, she did not get her wish and we continued to cruise around the desert……in circles.

In fact, at one point our guide appeared to stop a Bedouin man to ask for directions!

But we did see a bunch of camels (in the desert, imagine that!) and a gazelle who appeared to be injured and overall we made the best of it and enjoyed ourselves despite the lack of serious bashing.

Here is a little unedited video clip of our first real “playing” experience of the the Eat, Play, Love RTW trip.

On our last evening in Dubai Francesca and I wanted to go to the top of the Burj Al Arab hotel.  This is the one shaped like a boat’s sail and the location for that promotional stunt a few years back where Andre Agassi and Roger Federer played tennis on the heliport some 1,000 feet over the sand.  The problem was they were fully booked when we tried to make reservations a few days earlier and they have ridiculously tight security at all of the hotels.  Its not like in most cities where you can at least walk right into any hotel lobby.  In Dubai they have guards and other hotel staff placed at highly fortified check points on the long roads leading up to the hotel and if you aren’t a guest of the hotel or don’t have a reservation for one of the restaurants you are reduced to crowding around the barred gate trying to take photos of the hotel with the other rejects.

Well, my momma didn’t raise no reject so I proceeded to talk my way into the hotel by insisting that I had a reservation for “tea time” at the restaurant on top of the hotel.  My persistence, some academy award worthy acting by the way, paid off and we were allowed up.  And let me tell you, I’m ashamed to say it, but it felt really good when they opened the gates to let us pass through to the Promised Land.  I felt the envy radiating off of the rejects as we strolled through the gates and I puffed my chest out and walked tall.   I felt like turning to them and giving an impassioned speech about never taking no for an answer or being all they can be or something, but before I could do so the more level headed Francesca was pulling me by the arm away from my flock and off down the yellow brick road to the Burj.

Criticize me for being the “Ugly American” or praise me for my creativity and gumption, but at the end of the day its not like I took a spot away from someone else.  On the contrary, when we got to the top we found it virtually empty!  There were several tables set for “afternoon tea” as well as several seats at the bar which is where they had placed us.  I was a bit irked, quite frankly, that they had all this room available and were turning people away at the gate.   I assume that at least the tables were reserved for some time that evening, but they were certainly empty for the hour we were there and for the prices they charge (about $20 for a single diet coke) you’d think they could hire someone to do a better job at reservation management.

If this were a New York City restaurant they would have all the space maxed out and they would do various things to accommodate guests (and maximize their revenue) like offering people a table as long as they were finished by whatever time the next reservation was due to arrive instead of leaving it empty for hours in anticipation of a guest due to arrive later.  I felt like going back to the gate and rallying the rejects to storm the Bastille, but the views were stunning and I quickly forgot about the injustice and started taking photos.  Here are a couple of them;

Once again my apologies if I have offended any of our friends residing in Dubai.  Of course, they shouldn’t be too hurt since none of them are actually Emiratis, as the local UAE populous is called.  In fact, we learned that only an astounding 10% of current Dubai residents are locals!  The rest are expats with large groups having immigrated from the Philippines and India (and of course other Arab countries). And they all stand to be deported at the slightest transgression which keeps the city a safe one with virtually no crime.

So Dubai ended up being one of the memorable highlights from our trip based solely on the friends we reconnected with and the new ones we made.  It just goes to show you, you can be anywhere in the world and be happy as long as you have family or good friends around you.  After all we humans are, at the end of the day, pack animals are we not?

Country Stats:

Official Name: United Arab Emirates (UAE)

Official Language: Arabic (with English, Hindi, Urdu & Persion recognized)

Country Name in Native Language: Dawlat al-Imārāt al-‘Arabīyah al-Muttaḥidah

Population: 6,000,000

Capital City: Abu Dhabi

Government: Federal Constitutional Monarchy

Current Leader(s): President, Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan; Prime Minister, Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum

For more information about the UAE click here.

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3 Responses to “Arabian Nights…..American Hangovers!”

  1. well done on blagging your way to the top, you….blagger ! great to see ashwin and eiji too

  2. Interesting read, I’ll look out for more!

    • aroljahns Says:

      Thanks Purza. And congrats on your first website (according to your wordpress blog). Our trip around the world is now finished, so all that’s up now is all that there will be. 😦 Until, of course, RTW Trip #2. 🙂 But there are plenty of other posts there if you are interested. Check ’em out. Thanks, Dan

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